A Portrait of the Boss As a Young Man: On Bruce Springsteen’s First Seven Albums

The go-for-broke inspiration Bruce Springsteen became legendary for providing in his songs initially sprang from the most authentic source: himself.
Bruce Springsteen
The Album Collection Vol. 1: 1973-1984

There is one key question that arises whenever a new box set of previously-available material is released: is it necessary?

With Bruce Springsteen’s eight-disc The Album Collection Vol. 1: 1973-1984, the answer is an unequivocal, “Yes!” For one thing, five of these seven albums have, unbelievably, never been remastered. For those of us who own the original CD pressings, or have not particularly fond memories of how they sounded on vinyl or especially cassette incarnations, this sonic overhaul is not only very worthwhile but quite overdue.

Take it from an old-school Springsteen fan: the clarity on these reissues is game-changing. If it’s now obligatory, when talking remasters, to mention sounds never before heard and nuance not previously detectable, all of the usual, positive accolades apply here. The two that needed this treatment most, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The River, in some ways sound like new albums. Presumably, Bruce disciples need no cajoling, but anyone on the fence can be reassured that this is not the typical window dressing disguised as an (expensive) upgrade. These suckers needed some TLC, and now they’ve gotten it.

A (very) few words about the accompanying booklet: it is underwhelming, to put it kindly. No interviews, no essays, no new nuggets of information or detail about the various recording session are included. None of these things are imperative for the box set’s success, but considering that such features usually accompany reissues of this sort, and Springsteen has so much history to pore over, these omissions are curious at best. Aforementioned sonic upgrades aside, and taking into account the cost of this set, the bust of a booklet is a bit of an embarrassment. That said, it’s all about the music, and this music is more than capable of telling its own story.


Those Romantic Young Boys

Believe it or not, Bruce Springsteen wasn’t always the Boss. In fact, he paid persistent and less-than-productive dues for years as a work-in-progress. The breakthrough success of Born to Run, which landed him on the covers of Time and Newsweek in 1975, seems inevitable, even preordained. The reality is that fame and fortune were elusive, and by the time his debut dropped in 1973, he was an exceedingly experienced veteran of tiny clubs up and down the east coast.

Knowing what was to come, his uneven but promising first two albums reveal the work of an audacious if imperfectly formed voice. More than anything else, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle convey the enthusiasm we still associate with Springsteen’s legendary live performances. It’s a passion for creating, playing, and connecting that could scarcely be contained by hit singles or three-hour concerts.

Critically embraced but unable to catch fire commercially, his debut is really more like a first novel than a first album. The young narrator is trying to cram together everything he’s witnessed, everything he’s tasted, smelled, imagined and dreamed about. At times the explorations feel ill-suited to the format, shoehorned as they are into three-and-four-minute snippets of song. Of course, there were the unavoidable — and not entirely unwarranted — comparisons to Bob Dylan. For the most part, however, these early songs sound less like an homage to his hero than an experiment to see how many marbles he can fit into his mouth (see: “Blinded by the Light” and “For You”).

Interestingly, as it was released during the same year, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. is rather like a toned-down Quadrophenia for the Jersey Shore, with its litany of losers, hustlers, teenage theatrics and the tension between masculinity and creativity and how, if harnessed with sufficient care and talent, it can be translated into sensitive art. Occasionally indulgent (“Mary Queen of Arkansas”), sometimes anthemic (“Growing Up”, “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”), it’s when there is a lack of self-consciousness that Springsteen hints at perfection (“Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?”).

The one-two punch of “Spirit in the Night” and “Lost in the Flood” combines many of the obsessions Springsteen would spend the rest of his albums investigating: haunted veterans of real or imagined wars, along with hoodrats and wannabe heroes with goofy nicknames (Wild Billy, Hazy Davy). In an album full of fantastic lines (“I said ‘I’m Hurt’ she said ‘Honey, let me heal it’” and “Tainted women in VistaVision perform for out-of-state kids at the late show”), the young boss delivers an opening salvo that would become his aesthetic Holy Grail: “And I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car.”

For his follow-up, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, it’s a double-down of sorts, more Van Morrison than Bob Dylan, more funk than folk, more sounds than words. In most regards, this is all for the best; with hindsight, we see how things were moving irresistibly to the bigger and more brazen enterprise of Born to Run. We get another program full of characters (Sandy, Kitty, Rosalita, Spanish Johnny, Puerto Rican Jane, etc.) looking for love, or each other, or themselves, etc. A little of this goes a long way, and since there’s a lot of it, we can see how and why Springsteen struggled with ways to harness and hone his indefatigable determination.

On The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, there is more attention to detail, and the musicians, especially the brilliant keyboardist David Sancious, get plenty of space to stretch and assert themselves. Bruce, who gets less credit than he deserves as a lead guitarist, does some tasteful shredding on “Kitty’s Back”, and the use of strings (“New York City Serenade”) and both tuba and accordion (“Wild Billy’s Circus Story”) give the proceedings a panoramic sweep. If the debut at times sounds like a cherry bomb inside a soda can, the follow-up is the soundtrack of summer evenings on a fire escape after the rain stops.

If it wasn’t for the masterworks that followed, certain songs on this album would likely be more highly regarded. Certainly we have the concert-friendly “Rosalita” and “Kitty’s Back”, as well as the ebullient and odd obscurities of the title track and “Wild Billy’s Circus Story”. “New York City Serenade” strains for profundity and, with the aforementioned finesse of Sancious, it nearly succeeds.

“Incident on 57th Street”, on the other hand, is a abundantly-realized mini opera. This is the first instance where one can imagine even Van the Man and Dylan perking up an eyebrow and thinking “Who the hell is this kid?” Likewise, “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” is at once a summation of what Bruce was trying to do to that point and a preview of the muscle-ballads to come. (The song also has arguably best line of the album: “Did you hear the cops finally busted Madam Marie for tellin’ fortunes better than they do?”) Even though neither album was enough to put him over the top, it’s hard to claim anyone had a more productive, enduring year than Springsteen did in 1973.

The Promised Land

In a rather counterintuitive turn of events, the fact that the first two albums didn’t make as much noise as they could (or should) have ended up being the best possible thing that could have happened for Springsteen as an artist and us as an audience. Instead of packing it in, Springsteen quadrupled down and spent many subsequent months agonizing over every second of every new song, making the recording that ensured nobody would ever forget his name.

As has been amply documented, it was the lack of big-time success that ultimately convinced Bruce he had to put not only his oversized heart, but his mind, his soul and bone marrow into a tour de force no 25 year old had any business making. It could be said that the go-for-broke inspiration the Boss became legendary for providing in his songs initially sprang from the most authentic source: himself. As he grappled with how to translate the music he heard in his head, he gradually attained the ideal balance of more-is-more lyrics and epic scope with rawest and most honest emotion. The resultant material revolves around a theme that is basic as it is elusive: everyone wants to be fulfilled.

Every element comes together in the creation of rock’s mid-decade and post-Watergate response to the American Dream. Unlike his first two albums, where the narrators and heroes are kids in the midst of chasing shadows, making mistakes, or trying to escape their environment, on Born to Run, many of the protagonists have already seen and done enough to know that, for them, drastic action is required. There is an air of regret mixed with a not-yet extinguished defiance: the dream, whatever it may entail, is not quite dead. Thus the Romeo in “Thunder Road” declaring “it’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win” and the defiance of the title track “we can live with sadness / I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul” and the affirmations of dudes and/or bandleaders knowing they got what they wanted in “She’s the One” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”.

There are also those unlikely to get away or win, those who already have the deck stacked against them and are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge it. Despite the driving pulse of “Night”, where the everyman escapes the daily boil of his dead-end job and irksome commute to simply feel alive by driving off to nowhere at night with the yellow lines racing by beneath him, we know these flights are fleeting.

While the restrained bordering on elegiac musical backdrop (just piano, bass, and a killer trumpet cameo by Randy Brecker) on “Meeting Across the River” strains in its solemn way to make a hero out of this nobody, the tension of the song is that while he stands to score two grand, there is just as good a chance that he is about to get whacked. The track neither ironic nor patronizing; the action (the song’s working title was “The Heist”) is relayed from this guy’s point of view (“Tonight’s gonna be everything that I said”), and there is little doubt what’s at stake: “We got ourselves out on that line”. We don’t get to find out what happens, and whether the setting is 1975, 1875, or 2025, we don’t really need to.

What else? Not much, except this masterpiece arguably has the best opening and closing songs of any album, ever. With “Thunder Road”, Springsteen condenses a full record (a full movie, really) into just under five minutes. Getting a proper handle on “Jungleland” would require more than a paragraph or even a full review, really. I took a crack at it a few years back, and even that feature hardly does it justice.

And there it is: after a couple of tentative years as an apprentice, this is when Bruce became the Boss, and regardless of how you feel about everything that followed, the work here sufficiently secures his status for all time.

Streets of Fire

We have an understandable tendency to regard our biggest and best artists (and athletes) as fully-formed entities, miracles of evolution that, by their example and very existence, necessarily set them apart from us mere mortals. The reality is that while many of these icons are endowed with extraordinary gifts, the ones who make sustained and durable contributions invariably put in the work, and the work does not always, if ever, come easily. Put another way, our most successful innovators figure out what works by experimenting to determine what doesn’t work. When we consider artists like Michael Jordan or John Coltrane, it’s easy to assume it was destiny, and not discipline, that placed them in the pantheon.

Springsteen had done all any rock musician could reasonably ask or even hope for all by the time he set out to make his fourth album. For that reason, and certain other ones that have also been well documented, he took his time trying to follow Born to Run. Springsteen is now so huge and so ubiquitous that it almost seems disingenuous to mention, but the fact that he was even willing, much less able, to step into the studio again warrants a measure of admiration.

With Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce cemented his legacy as his hero for some, while crossing over into unforgivable pretension and posturing, for others. In this author’s view, the folks in the latter category miss the mark — but more on that later.

Here’s the deal: Springsteen found fame, fortune, and acclaim. Then he made his darkest album yet, one that put him solidly on the side of society that didn’t inherit money or get blessed with good luck. The haters will say this was rich dude’s guilt or, worse, blatant slumming to earn solidarity and record sales from a blue collar audience. Once again, it would seem apparent to anyone who’s read the lyrics or followed the man’s career of putting his time and energy where his mouth is, that these are risible notions.

Some critics and many fans think Darkness on the Edge of Town is Springsteen’s best album; this critic and fan does not agree. If it signals the beginning of a new era where a more mature artist addresses more adult, real-world crises, it’s also the advent of too many songs that are overproduced and too slick by half, featuring music that does not always match the often somber material. Perhaps a starker soundscape would have made the album intolerably bleak, but the carnivalesque elements, prominent drums (consider me possibly the only person who has wondered how much better things would have been had the Boss retained the services of Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez), and bombast make it occasionally difficult to savor. This formula would reach its intolerable fruition on “Born in the U.S.A.”, which proved that the team’s commercial instincts were astute, even at the expense of making what should have been one of Springsteen’s most harrowing tunes an arena-ready anthem.

This is serious music, and there is definitely darkness here. There is also resilience bordering on optimism, notably in “The Promised Land”, “Prove It All Night” as well as the scorching title track, a song that deftly combines individuality and defiance. There is the righteous fury of “Adam Raised a Cain” (taking us from Asbury Park to the Old Testament), the straightforward rock triumph of “Candy’s Room”, the weary stoicism of “Streets of Fire” and the aforementioned tribute to the lunch pail crew in “Factory”. And then there’s the ballad “Racing in the Street”, one of Springsteen’s best, which could be considered a stripped-down continuation of pint-size epics like “Lost in the Flood” and “New York City Serenade”, or perhaps an apotheosis of the emotional heft achieved in “Incident on 57th Street” and “Jungleland”.

The River is, in some regards, a bigger but ultimately slighter continuation of the moods and themes from the previous album. Indeed, several of the songs were outtakes from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions. Like so many double LPs, debate can rage regarding whether a better set would result from it being pared down to a single album, as Bruce initially intended. And like all great and debated double LPs, it’s the messier and (debatably) less successful bits that bestow an extra staying power, not unlike the way that fat makes for a well-marbled slab of steak.

Perhaps to lighten the tension or, heaven forbid, indulge in some good, old fashioned feel-good rock, the material shifts from ebullient to the intense. Revealingly, some of the softer material provides a template for his chart-crushing Born in the U.S.A., while a few of the heavier numbers sound like blueprints for Nebraska. For evidence of the former, consider the disarmingly upbeat “Hungry Heart”: like “Badlands”, only less so, the buoyant music undercuts the cynicism (“We fell in love I knew it had to end”), the desperation (“We took what we had and we ripped it apart”) and the immutability (“Don’t make no difference what nobody says/Ain’t nobody like to be alone”) pumping that hungry, restless heart. For evidence of the latter, consider “Stolen Car” or the title track.

It would be too easy to characterize this as “Jungleland” writ small, but if anything, it cuts deeper and has that universal resonance, because this is a story everyone has seen, heard or experienced. And that is the essential import of Springsteen: he became Superman by singing, compellingly, about the most average, unremarkable people and problems. If American rock music has a poet laureate, it’s Springsteen.

Now those memories come back to haunt me

They haunt me like a curse

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true

Or is it something worse

That sends me down to the river

Though I know the river is dry…

Game, set, match. After this Bruce was, for all time, the Boss. He had nothing left to prove. Nevertheless, he would go on to make his most personal and possibly important album, after which he became a decade-dominating supernova.

Deliver Me From Nowhere

Perhaps because of what followed — the next album, the acclaim — Springsteen’s decision to make the ultimate lo-fi album seems even more prescient, appropriate, and perfect. If Darkness on the Edge of Town was a, well, darker departure from Born To Run, then Nebraska, after the mostly genial proceedings on The River, was like a belly flop into the abyss.

Nebraska carries with it death, despair and the electric chair — and that’s just on the opening song. If Springsteen had carved out an affirmative niche, cataloging the difficult paths traveled and infrequent respites rewarded to our working stiffs, he now turned his sights on the dispossessed, the down-and-outs, the embittered outcasts and the irredeemable hard-cases. On Nebraska, he’s not simply telling their stories (often without apology or unease), he is also using their seemingly preordained fates as a commentary on the things that don’t get mentioned when we talk about the American Dream. Nebraska is not a dark album so much as an album filled with voices calling out, sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting, from a vast, inescapable darkness.

After more than 30 years of declining middle class wages and a major recession that saw taxpayers bailing out the cretins that caused it, much of what Springsteen sings about seems familiar, quaint, and perhaps even a bit naïve. That is why Nebraska is still important now, and why it was radical in its time. Springsteen might not have been the first major artist to call out the Reagan Revolution as the farce it was, but he certainly had the biggest bullhorn. Nebraska could only be called a political album by those who consider an examination of cause and effect a political act.

This is, in so many ways, Springsteen’s most human album, not just because of its stripped-down aesthetic, but because each song deals directly with the themes he’s made a career stalking like a stenographer: the would-be criminals, the convicted, the could-be champions. and the ones born beneath the underdog, to quote Charles Mingus. Nebraska joins the ranks of essential but demanding albums, like Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night. This record is not one you return to for pleasure, though the pleasures are manifold; instead, it’s one you return to in appreciation, to savor and pay witness. Like all great art that tells us what we need to know and don’t necessarily want to know, we must be thankful that someone else, using fiction, has created a kind of reportage that is truer than newspaper truth.

Nebraska remains a work that insists on being absorbed in a single setting, each song anticipating and in some cases commenting upon the next. The immortal line “I got debts no honest man could pay” turns up twice and the notion of inevitability, be it debt or death, is a running leitmotif throughout all ten songs.

Still, the single line that unifies the whole is another that surfaces in two separate songs: “Deliver me from nowhere”. The narrator of the title track, recalling The Misfit from Flannery O’Connor, is resigned to his fate (“I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”). The man staring down life in prison in “Johnny 99” has an indictment for those indicting him (“It was more than all this that put that gun in my hand”). The aimless driver who may or may not be describing a felony-in-progress (again recalling the Misfit) offers the ultimate J’accuse! to an indifferent universe (“The only thing that I got’s been botherin’ me my whole life”). Yet after the various encounters and carnage have unfolded, the Boss — both judge and jury — offers up a refrain that defines his very American sensibility: “At the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe.”

Glory Days

As anyone who drew breath between 1984 and 1986 recalls, Springsteen was ubiquitous in the mid-’80s. For numerous reasons, Born in the U.S.A. was the right album at the right time. For many understandable reasons, it’s the single album that appealed to the largest group of people. Being indifferent to it, then, and having no stomach for it now, is not a cantankerous badge of honor, or mean-spirited attempt to seem old school. The fact of the matter is that much of this material made many fans extremely happy. More power and props to all involved.

For this fan and, presumably, at least a handful of folks who knew who the Boss was before “Dancing in the Dark”, there is very little of lasting value on this absurdly radio-friendly monstrosity. To be certain, Nebraska was (intentionally) unsophisticated, but its heart is off the charts. On this, we have the most simplistic formula on repeat cycle: unsophisticated songs on the lyrical and musical front, and a production gloss that will give your ears cavities. The hyper-amplified and overplaying Max Weinberg alone is a deal breaker, but the synthesizers suck the life out of everything. (Yeah, okay, it was the ‘80s).

Worst of all, for once, the “working man” motif actually does feel like shtick. To take but one example, “Working on the Highway”: listening to it 30 years on — like Alex from A Clockwork Orange with ears pried open — one wants to like it, and can almost appreciate how it invokes Eddie Cochran… but then the cheesy synth comes in and it becomes half-assed rockabilly filtered through a cotton candy machine. Only “I’m on Fire”, “I’m Goin’ Down”, “Downbound Train” and, barely, “My Hometown” salvage this from the über-commercial scrap heap.

Mileage varies, obviously, but for me, Born in the U.S.A. takes the softer sheen of The River and the sporadic gloss of Darkness on the Edge of Town, puts the mess on a cycle of steroids with a cocaine chaser, and the result is MTV Eden.

And then there’s the whole issue with the title track, easily the most misunderstood song of all time. Any defense of Springsteen’s intentions can and should point to the lyrics, but there is simply no excusing the chest-thumping, insipid sing-along music, which predictably led simpletons (like George Will) to try and appropriate this as a “Go America!” theme song. (A lot more on what was and what should have been, here.)

No Surrender

Here’s the thing about Bruce Springsteen looking back over 30 years after his biggest album dropped: he seems content, and he has every reason to be content. He is no longer a young man, but he’s kept after the same issues and injustices that inspired his best work. That alone absolves him from the cynics, skeptics, and all-purpose haters.

Some final words should be said to the self-satisfied conservative sorts who love pointing out how an opportunistic Springsteen has gotten wealthy by offering up feel-good platitude. (Kind of like Ronald Reagan, an irony entirely lost on these True Believers). Springsteen puts his time and money where his heart is, and he has done more for this country, as an artist and an advocate than just about any politician. He remains a man amongst boys, and if some of his work has not aged well or his later work at times inevitably disappoints, he himself presents a model for how to advance through life with dignity and integrity. He is and always will be the Boss, and America has produced very few artists who have depicted and appraised their country with more passion and purpose.

Splash image of Bruce Springsteen from his website.